Laura Whitcomb, LPC, CACII
As an adult child of two alcoholic parents I was seeking answers. I recall my first Al-anon meeting. I went in there and ranted and raved about all the ways my parents had wronged me. Though it felt good to speak my pain aloud, it wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped. No one responded to my sad story or offered sympathy and condolence as I had expected due to the “No cross talk” format of the meetings. “Awkward….” I thought. I went back anyway, thinking maybe I’d have a different experience. I was again disappointed. I attended a third and fourth time and after consistently feeling like no one was providing any support at all, I was ready to ditch this unsupportive support group. I guess it was the fifth or sixth meeting that I noticed not only was no one else ranting and raving about all the ways they’d been victimized by their alcoholics, they were focused on their own thoughts, beliefs and behaviors. “Weird!”, I thought. “Why don’t these people talk about all the ways they have been taken for granted, taken advantage of, verbally or physically attacked and manipulated by their addict/alcoholic? Obviously, these people don’t understand how painful it is to be the burdened with two alcoholic parents.”
It took several more meetings before I began to understand why meeting attendants were so self-focused. They had all learned somewhere along their own path of healing that they didn’t have to be a victim to the addict’s behaviors and choices. They seemed to have taken their power back and chosen to focus on themselves since they were having no luck trying to fix their alcoholics. They were finally at peace through learning to let go of the overwhelming and unending responsibility of fixing the people and situations outside of their control (the addicts choices and conundrums) and instead, had begun caring for themselves with the energy they had previously dedicated to their addicted family member and their disease.
As an addiction therapist, I often sense hesitation or reluctance from family members when they ask how they can help, and I encourage them to seek their own therapy and support group. Family members, understandably, want to focus on their loved one in treatment for addiction; “Yes, but what can I do to support my son/daughter, etc?” they often reply. I find myself wishing I could help parents, partners, siblings, and other family members understand just how important taking care of themselves really is to their loved one’s ability to achieve sustained recovery.
Most of us have heard that addiction is a family disease. It not only affects the user, but the whole family, as well. Particularly, living under the same roof with someone who’s dependent on alcohol or drugs, family members must navigate and endure the chaotic world of addiction, ultimately adopting coping strategies that can create lasting negative effects. A client can successfully complete an inpatient treatment program, and if they return to an unchanged family system, chances of maintaining long term sobriety are significantly reduced. Most people have heard the term “co-dependence,” but what does that mean? As parents and partners we desperately want to help our loved one stop using and will go to any length to do so. However, (and if you haven’t experienced this already, you will soon learn) you can hide, pour out, and throw out as many bottles of alcohol and paraphernalia as you want to, and the addiction will persist. This temptation to control and prevent our loved ones from continuing to engage in behaviors that hurt them and everyone around them is a natural instinct, yet only seems to add to the pain and unmanageability of the addiction and family relationships. So, what do you do? How can you help?
Recommended behaviors of distancing yourself from the active user and developing your own healthy self-care habits seems counter-intuitive. How can you be expected to just walk away and focus on yourself? For many it seems near impossible. Understanding how these actions can support your loved one and even increase the chances for success in long term recovery is not easy. Perhaps you have come to understand how focusing on your own needs and discontinuing efforts to control the addict is a good idea; but you cannot possibly imagine stepping aside knowing that your loved one may continue putting themselves at risk. You may even be afraid their consumption will increase once you are no longer there to monitor and restrict their access and use. This is precisely why the addiction professional is encouraging you to attend a support group and/or engage in your own therapy. Understanding what co-dependence in relationships really looks like and how you can stop engaging in these unhelpful behavior patterns is not something that can be accomplished through a brief phone call with the addiction therapist working with your loved one.
If your initial reaction to the idea of going to an Al-anon meeting is that you’d rather have a root canal… go anyway and know that your addicted love one feels the same way about attending meetings and being in treatment. How would you respond if your addicted family member said, “I don’t want to go because I feel uncomfortable” or “I just don’t understand how this can help me?” If you have tried Al-anon and have not had a good experience I encourage you to try again. The group dynamic and general culture can be very different among groups. Try a different group and go more than once! If Al-anon is not your jam, there are many other resources for family support out there (see links below).
As a professional therapist who has experienced both living with addicted family members and working with individuals struggling with addiction, I implore you to turn your focus to yourself and your own wellbeing and away from the addict. Take a breather! Allow yourself to be taken care of for a change. Your willingness and ability to do so will be a gift to both yourself and your loved one in the long run.